Noble Secrets (1400 to 1600 C.E.)

One July morning, project co-director Gino Fornaciari dropped by the church. There he found his former student, Vercellotti, examining teeth with Poinar. “Why are the teeth so good?” Poinar asked. Fornaciari replied: “They’re young. The teeth are good because the normal age of death was 40.” He pointed out that the tooth wear can also reveal whether someone ate many tough grains such as coarse millet, or a more refined, soft diet.

When it comes to reading the signature of disease and foul play in the bones of ancient people, Fornaciari is the master. A professor in the medical school at the University of Pisa and the father of team member Antonio Fornaciari, he’s famous for investigating the lives and deaths of the ancient nobility of Italy, including the Medici of Florence, who lived just 60 km from Badia Pozzeveri.

This site offers him and the others a rare chance to examine the health of commoners as well as nobles during the Renaissance. They have already found people of various social classes, buried in area 3000 from 1500 to 1700. One woman was buried with her spectacles—an expensive and treasured accessory—and several skeletons were interred in a costly stone-lined vault inside the ancient church. But most of the bones were buried in wooden coffins outside the churchyard and probably were those of poorer rural people, whose daily lives are less well known than the nobility of cities.

Commoners’ bones will provide a counterpoint to Fornaciari’s work elsewhere revealing the woeful condition of the well-fed nobility. In Naples, he examined the mummy of Maria d’Aragona (see graphic, below), a noblewoman who lived from 1503 to 1568 and was a famed beauty in her youth—but was obese at death. That fits with what he has learned about her fellow nobles’ diet. In 2008, Fornaciari analyzed carbon and nitrogen ratios in bone collagen from other princes of Naples and the Medici of Florence, and found that they had as much nitrogen in their diet as carnivorous mammals. Clearly, Renaissance royalty ate unhealthy quantities of meat at a time when many rural people struggled to get enough calories.

Nor was rank a protection against horrific infectious diseases. When Fornaciari cut off a linen bandage from Maria d’Aragona’s arm, he discovered a large ulcer. He examined the tissue with a scanning electron microscope and rinsed it with antibodies that fluoresce in the presence of the bacteria that cause syphilis, Treponema pallidum. The tissue was so well preserved that he could detect the spiral shape of the bacteria; he sent tissue to Poinar to confirm the diagnosis. Poor Maria also harbored human papillomavirus in a venereal wart—the first diagnosis of this sexually transmitted, cancer-causing disease in the tissue of a mummy, Fornaciari reported in a 2006 paper.

Sexually transmitted diseases were common in Renaissance Italy. Syphilis raced through the country in the 1500s, possibly after Spanish sailors brought a new venereal form from the New World. Fornaciari also examined Maria’s distant relative, Isabella d’Aragona, who was also buried in Naples (see graphic, below). She was married to the Duke of Milan and is thought by many to be the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. When Fornaciari looked closely at this lady’s teeth, he found that they had been abraded to remove most of the enamel. The remaining enamel traces were black, a sign that she had taken mercury, which was then used—ineffectively—to treat syphilis. Lab tests confirmed that the black patina had a high level of mercury and that Isabella d’Aragona was poisoned by her own medicine, dying at age 54 in 1524.

By comparing the teeth and bones of urban nobles with those of Pozzeveri peasants, the team hopes to see how social rank affected health. The teeth of the noblewomen are less worn, because they ate a softer diet with meat, whereas poorer women and children often ate coarse millet. Vercellotti and Larsen expect to see more disruptions in tooth growth caused by lack of food during childhood in the peasants. With the graveyard’s large sample sizes, they hope to compare the men and women of Badia Pozzeveri to see who was better fed.